Postscript to shaming
Miriam Santiago had an interesting piece of advice to graduates. They didn’t have to wait until they could vote, she said, to be able to remove the scammers from public office. “Shame them now. Take your campaign to Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr. Post your grievances on these politicians’ walls. Tweet them your disappointments. Eventually, these politicians will shed their thick hides because of the shame, and reveal themselves to be spineless pathetic creatures.”
Even the youth, she said, paid their taxes. They did that every time they ate in their favorite fast food, took public transport, and watched a movie. They had every right to be angry with the crooks in office and shame them.
What can I say? I’m all for it, but nice work if you can get it, as the song says. Or nice work if you can do it, to paraphrase it.
At the very least, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to shame the shameless. During Rizal’s time satire was a powerful tool because the objects of it were not entirely sin verguenza or without shame. The friars and civilian officials so bristled at Rizal’s satirical barbs they had him shot at the Luneta. There used to be time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when public officials could still be shamed by being called buaya, which, as everyone observed then, did a horrendous injustice to crocodiles. All that disappeared with martial law.
Miriam herself has gotten her share of brickbats along the way. Not least for being, along with Juan Ponce Enrile, her current archenemy, the staunchest defender of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the first having been convicted of plunder, the second awaiting trial for plunder. All she’s done is complain about cyberspace bullying, an irony if ever there was one. But she’s still there, unembarrassed, unfazed, uncontrite, telling the youth to employ that tactic on others.
More than this, however, for you to want to shame the scammers, you must first feel scammed. For you to want to get back at those who wronged you, you must first feel wronged. That’s the premise of shaming, and that premise is unfortunately not there for us.
We do pay taxes whether we’re rich or poor, whether we’re young or old, whether we file taxes or not. We do that every time we buy something courtesy of the VAT. But the question is: Do we really see that? Do we really see that the taxes we pay are still our money? Do we really expect the taxes we pay to speedily, automatically, inexorably go back to us in roads and hospitals and schoolhouses?
If we glimpse that at all, it is only a glimmer of it. Certainly, we have not internalized it. Certainly, not the poor among us who think they are not paying taxes anyway, who think taxes are spoils subject to division among public officials by rules they do not understand, or particularly care to. How can you want to shame anyone with attitude?
You see the contrast when you go abroad. The first time I went to the United States, in the early 1980s, a group of us passed a street in New York that yielded a crack in the concrete about a foot long. I joked that even streets in America were not in perfect condition, they developed cracks, too. When we came back to the same street after a few hours, the crack had disappeared and a road grader was pulling away. I was impressed and expressed my amazement to my companions. They were amazed by my amazement and looked at me as though I had just come from the mountains, which I had.
My companions were not Americans or Pinoys born in America. They were Pinoys who had lived there for some time, some of them for just a few years. But they, too, now found the idea of a road needing minor repair being repaired in a few hours the most natural thing in the world. What would have amazed them, and which would probably have made them weep and gnash their teeth, was that crack in the cement being still there when we came back.
That is what it means to internalize the idea that taxes are the people’s money, the citizens’ money, the community’s money, and that the taxpayers may naturally expect that money to come back to them speedily, automatically, inexorably. Americans may complain about high taxes, which are growing even higher. They may complain about the tyranny of the taxman, who is even more tyrannical than death. But they may not complain about the goods and services they get back from their taxes in return.
Which, not quite incidentally, is what makes Kim Henares’ confrontational efforts to make us pay through our teeth, complete with an ad that shamed doctors, evaders and nonevaders alike, a turnoff. There is no problem with carrying out an assiduous campaign to make people pay their taxes, but there is every problem when that campaign does not go with reasonable demonstrations that those taxes are getting back to the taxpayers. The antipork people who threatened to mount a tax boycott last year in light of the Napoles scam were not being unreasonable. The two go together, paying taxes and getting them back in goods and services. The one means nothing without the other.
We get to internalize that taxes are our money, we get to expect that cracks on our streets will be repaired as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, we won’t need to shame the scammers at all. The opprobrium, disgust, anger at those who scam will be there spontaneously, going as they do against the grain of natural expectation, forcing them to bow their heads and slink away. Look at how things are in the Western countries where public officials resign automatically from shame when they are tainted with crookedness. Look at the other Asian countries where public officials disembowel themselves from the same thing.
That we need to go out of our way to shame the shameless, that’s the real shame.
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